Chöd Practice in the Bön Tradition
In Chöd Practice in the Bön Tradition, author Alejandro Chaoul presents a scholarly overview of a form of meditative practice that is little known in the Western world. It is called chöd, a term that translates to “cutting.” Chaoul’s presentation studies chöd in the context of the Tibetan Bön tradition and differentiates it from the practice of chöd in the Buddhist tradition.
While Chaoul offers a valuable text on what is a rarely studied ancient tradition, readers should be forewarned that although this is a slim book, it is not a light read. The subject matter is fascinating, however, due to what may appear to some as an extreme type of meditation. The purpose of performing chöd, according to Chaoul, is to cut through the practitioner’s ego as a step toward achieving enlightenment or buddhahood. Chöd is considerably different from our typical view of meditation. Simply put, this type of meditation is performed in such a way that it induces fear in the practitioner so that he or she may “sever” or see through their fear.
To practice chöd, a person usually meditates at night in a frightening place, such as a cemetery or charnel ground. The practitioner performs music with traditional instruments that historically have been constructed with human bones. The drum, for example, is ideally made of two human skulls, one of a 16-year-old male and one of a 16-year-old female. Chaoul writes that it is best if the skulls come from children who have passed away in accidents and not from sickness. During the meditation, the practitioners are to envision their bodies being cut up and served to various demons.
The desired result of the chöd practice is to transcend human ignorance, which has placed us within samsāra (“a cycle of birth, sickness, aging, death and rebirth”). Chaoul writes that chöd is “considered to be a powerful method to liberate one from this cycle.” Not only does this practice offer insight but it’s also a lesson in the ultimate act of generosity: the offering of the practitioner’s physical body. It’s these two attributes (generosity and insight) that Chaoul states are “the two main ingredients in developing the mind of enlightenment.”
In Chöd Practice in the Bön Tradition, Chaoul gives an overview of the history of chöd, discusses ancient related texts, and explains how it is practiced. Chaoul also touches briefly on what he calls “the representations of the female aspects of reality” in chöd. In this tradition, “when one is freed from one’s body, one returns to the oneness of the great womb.” Unfortunately, as interesting as further explanation on this would be, Chaoul admits but does not go into reasons why he was unable to include additional discussion on how practitioners view the feminine as it relates to chöd.